Entrepreneur

This S’pore Startup Went Against The 'Grain' And Ran Cloud Kitchens Before They Got Popular

“We were one of the very first few cloud kitchens that served customers without a storefront back in 2015.”

“This was before the terms ‘cloud kitchen’, ‘ghost kitchen’ or ‘dark kitchen’ even existed,” said Yi Sung Yong, CEO and co-founder of Grain Singapore.

In 2014, the Grain team found themselves asking the same question every single day: ‘What do we eat today?’

It is a first-world problem and along the same vein, everyday eating should be as easy as a few taps on your phone — not some brain-cracking math question.

This sparked the idea for Grain to be online-first.

“This allows us to use data and a tech-enabled network to help us serve food to our customers that satisfies our core needs — a healthy, tasty, affordable and convenient food experience.”

Sung, together with three other co-founders — Ernest Sim, Gao Rifeng, and Isaac Tan — launched Grain in 2014.

(Clockwise from top left) Yi Sung Yong, Ernest Sim, Gao Rifeng and Isaac Tan / Image Credit: Forbes

Their aim is to offer health-conscious, taste-conscious and everyday meals, working with their own team of chefs and delivery fleet in a so-called “full-stack” model.

Running Cloud Kitchens Before They Were Cool

Most food tech startups like foodpanda and Deliveroo partner restaurants to deliver cooked meals to customers.

However, Grain’s co-founders went for a different approach.

They adopted a cloud kitchen model — utilising unwanted real estate space as kitchens.

While cloud kitchens rent their space to F&B companies as a cheaper way to make food for their on-demand delivery customers, Grain works with its own chefs, menu and delivery team.

Grain meal boxes
Image Credit: Grain

Their menu is designed by in-house chefs, and the platform features shared meals for groups, as well as meal box combos that come with sides and drinks. There are also desserts to cleanse the palate.

A regular meal costs from S$10.95 while their combos cost from S$16.95.

Besides individual meals, the startup also serves buffet catering for corporate events and parties during pre-COVID-19 days. These dishes are also developed by their R&D team and chefs.

Grain kitchen
Grain kitchen / Image Credit: Grain

Users can place their orders via the website or mobile app through a standard e-commerce platform process.

All food is prepared and packed inside Grain’s own facilities, then delivered to customers by their own fleet of couriers.

We were, and still are, one of the only ones setting the standard for full-stack — controlling everything from ordering (tech) to cooking (food) to delivering (logistics). 

By pushing the limits of how food makes us feel, we can build a community that has only one thing on their mind: ‘What will we eat next?’

– Yi Sung Yong, CEO and co-founder of Grain

Turning Profitable Within Four Years

They started the business with less than S$100,000 and after a year, Grain crossed the S$1 million revenue run rate.

This is no mean feat as among the four co-founders, only one of them has F&B experience and is a chef.

Isaac had managed 4 different restaurants under the WWW Concepts Group at the age of 25 and is the main creator of the dishes on the menu.

grain meal box
Image Credit: Grain

Albeit achieving success early into the business, Sung said that they faced challenges.

We had to figure out a lot of things from scratch and use first principles to solve industry-specific problems as we were not experienced F&B folks.

[Most of us] were ex-management consultants, software guys trying to disrupt F&B. 

– Yi Sung Yong, CEO and co-founder of Grain

However, Sung shared that “software and consulting gave [them] the technical skills and clear-thinking needed to build Grain.”

They received their very first external funding in January 2016 — a S$2.5 million Series A round led by Openspace Ventures.

Grain Team in 2016
Grain Team in 2016 / Image Credit: Grain’s Facebook page

Another Series A round was called at the end of the year and Openspace Ventures participated again and injected an additional S$1.7 million into Grain.

These four young gamechangers — their current average age is 32 — soon received recognition and landed themselves on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List in 2016.

While a full-stack model allows them to control everything, it also presented challenges. They were initially hamstrung by a small team of staff, and operated from a home kitchen.

When it upgraded to a sprawling new office fitted with an industrial kitchen in 2017, Grain had to quickly adapt its processes.

Subsequently, a venture round in February 2018 led by First Gourmet, FoodXervices and Majuven raised them another S$1.7 million.

By December 2018, Grain achieved profitability, which was “a huge milestone for [them], because it proves that [they] have what it takes to be a sustainable company.”

One Of S’pore’s Fastest-Growing Firms

grain delivery
Image Credit: Grain

Their latest round of Series B funding in May 2019 raised US$10 million (S$13.6 million) led by Thailand’s Singha Ventures.

They were delivering “thousands” of meals per day in Singapore — its sole market — with eight-figure sales per year, Sung shared in a 2019 interview with TechCrunch.

Growth was 200 percent in 2018 and it was soon time to spread their wings overseas. The startup began looking to expand to other Asian cities, starting with Bangkok. 

The funds raised would enable them to work with Singha to leverage its extensive F&B network across the country, including logistics and distribution.

grain food
Wedding menu / Image Credit: Grain

By then, the 2019 funding round and business growth ranked Grain fifth among Singapore’s fastest-growing companies, according to a study conducted by The Straits Times and Statista.

In May 2020, Grain made its entrance into Thailand and opened three new branches in Bangkok in July.

They have also embarked on five new projects: Wokaholic (American-Chinese food), Hot Chick Buns (chicken-centric fast food), Holy Kao! and Krua Soi 9 (Thai favourites), and Fareground (a virtual food hall).

Cloud Kitchens Come To The Rescue

Sung, who is Malaysian, shared that during Covid-19, “B2B took a big hit with offices going remote, but B2C experienced 10 times growth during this period.”

With Singaporeans forced to stay and work at home, food delivery saw a huge surge in demand.

Grain also quickly saw an opportunity to utilise their cloud kitchens to make bubble tea when standalone bubble tea stores were ordered to close.

We reached out to the KOI executives on the same day. Within three days, we signed a deal and built up a bubble tea factory in one of our cold kitchens.

We sold millions of dollars of bubble tea during this period. 

– Yi Sung Yong, CEO and co-founder of Grain

Singaporeans could continue enjoying their favourite drink as a result of the partnership.

With the pandemic causing the closures of F&B establishments everywhere, cloud kitchens have emerged as a F&B alternative as the industry adapts to shifting consumer demand.

Cajun Grilled Chicken grain
Cajun Grilled Chicken / Image Credit: Grain

Just as co-working and shared office spaces have been touted as possible solutions for companies to provide the option of flexible office space once the crisis subsides, shared cloud kitchens could also help ease the financial burden on restaurants when it comes to renting kitchen space.

In addition, the expansion of cloud kitchens could help pick up the slack created by in-house restaurants being forced to close as a result of the economic fallout of the virus.

The next projects on their plate: launching high-quality brands with a lot of customer love and productising their restaurant tech stack, Grain Atlas, that wants to become the “operating system” of F&B.

“We will also open up new cities slowly when we feel we are ready to provide a great customer experience,” said Sung.

Featured Image Credit: General Assembly / Grain

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